Matt O'Connor hails 'leaders' as Leinster feed off Ulster fear
Leinster 13 Ulster 9
OFTEN the measure of sporting excellence is merely a matter of superior temperament.
So it was little surprise that this gripping, gritty local dispute was ultimately decided in the favour of the side whose mental muscle memory repulses the very notion of defeat on such occasions.
For, when it comes to knockout rugby, offer Leinster a noose and they will, more often that not, ensnare their opponents. Offer it to Ulster and they will more than likely hang themselves.
Leinster have featured in 24 of these crunch knockout clashes since their seminal breakthrough in 2009; Ulster have barely a quarter of such experience.
Leinster have put paid to Ulster's title ambitions for three straight seasons now; as much as they are sick to the back teeth of their neighbours' pre-eminence, it is a status to which they aspire.
They're sick and tired of learning lessons they fail to put into practice. It's just that it remains so difficult to defeat a side that simply refuses to give in.
Ulster's coach Mark Anscombe will spend another long summer pondering the conundrum: you suggest that, for a side who are more than physically capable, perhaps we're entering the arena of the mental block.
"I don't know if it is that," he refutes, before his words betray his denial.
"The biggest thing we have got to take on board is keeping composure under pressure. You might create and build up some pressure on teams but it's not enough for 20, 30, 40 minutes.
"You have to keep that right through until you come to the 70th minute. That's what the good teams do, they know they can keep working and working and believe in themselves, stick to their game and not go outside that.
"Finally you'll get that success. It might only be one opportunity but you've kept believing in what you have worked on in training and prepared for."
Which, quite accurately, sums up Leinster, who played like a drain for 40 minutes but only drained six points; they didn't score until the 58th minute and never led until the 72nd thanks to Ian Madigan's inspiring intervention.
"At a stage it looked like we had the better of them," muttered retiring Ulster captain Johann Muller. "But once again it shows you the quality of this Leinster side. They know when to raise their game.
"They've played in play-off games plenty of times in the last five-six years... that experience of knowing what they need to do."
Leinster have not always presented a study of beauty this term but their desire to succeed remains admirably unwavering; it is indelibly stitched into the very fabric of their being. The finer details of their sluggish start and raucous ending will not linger long in the memory.
Leinster know they need to be better against Glasgow, much as O'Connor demurred when this was presented as an "ugly" performance. For him, the beauty lay in the revelation, again, of this club's characteristic resilience.
"I'd like to beg to differ on the ugly call," he protested. "Knockout rugby is knockout rugby. That was a pretty intense game, to go 9-0 down and fight your way back, there's nothing ugly about that – pretty impressive from my end.
"We spoke about leaders, we spoke about the composure. It was a pretty courageous performance. Home advantage is so important, that helped us get over the line as well, the fans were fantastic."
Ultimately, Leinster held their nerve; Ulster, who should have been out of sight well before Madigan's try, lost theirs. Forward passes, missed touchfinders – physical frailties all hinting at mental timidity.
Leinster ended up with a pair of tens and a pair of nines in their backline; it shouldn't have proved to be a winning hand but Ulster somehow folded. If only they'd cashed their chips earlier.
"We worked our way up to a good stage in the game, being in control, professional," rued Anscombe. "We were going well, had the game in control and then little things happen.
"They started putting us under pressure, having a crack, which we knew was going to come but we just didn't keep our composure under pressure as well as we should have. That took a bit of tension off them and we put it on ourselves.
"Then we made some poor decisions. We created good opportunities, particularly in the first half, even a couple in that second, but we just lacked composure to finish it off.
"Just on half-time we should have scored a try as well, they were key moments. Against good teams like this you are not going to get six to eight opportunities, you may get two or three and you have got to at least take one of them. Which we failed to do."
And, whereas Ulster appeared to become ever more fretful and fearful as the match wore on, Leinster's inner resolve and experience, particularly from the bench, grew in its significance as a factor the nearer we approached the end game.
Ulster uncertainty was countered by unshakeable Leinster conviction.
"Once we got a foothold in the second half, we were comfortable with what we were going to do," agreed O'Connor.
"The bench were big. In defence, we were pretty comfortable. Ulster didn't really look like scoring, they had a couple of chances but our defence was very, very good."
And that was the ball game right there. Glasgow will present a more irreverent challenge.
"They're a good side, they're the form side in the competition to be fair, certainly since Christmas they've been very good," said O'Connor. "They've a good squad. They have a lot of big game experience in that squad and we're going to need to be very good to get the result we need."
Leinster aren't in the business of losing finals, though. However improbable it seems, they always extricate themselves from the noose.
When it comes to winning titles, they still have the nous.
LEINSTER – R Kearney, F McFadden (Z Kirchner 67), B O'Driscoll (I Madigan 49), G D'Arcy, D Kearney (L McGrath 69); J Gopperth, E Reddan; C Healy (J McGrath 69), S Cronin (A Dundon 79), M Moore (M Ross 56); D Toner, Q Roux (L Cullen 56); R Ruddock (S O'Brien 56), S Jennings, J Heaslip capt.
ULSTER – C Gilroy; T Bowe, J Payne, D Cave (L Marshall 56), A Trimble, P Jackson (J McKinney 56), R Pienaar; C Black, R Best, R Lutton (A Warwick 61); J Muller capt (D Tuohy 58), I Henderson; R Diack, C Henry (S Doyle 69), R Wilson.
REF – L Hodges (WRU)